Health Break | Published July 20, 2007 | Written by Tara Baney, RN, MS, AOCN

Head and Neck Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 55,000 Americans will develop cancer of the head and neck this year; 13,000 of them will die from it.

Cancers of the head and neck region include tumors of the: oral cavity, the sinus region, nasal cavity, throat, voice box and thyroid.

Tobacco use (smoking and chewing tobacco) and alcohol use are the two major risk factors associated with cancer of the oral cavity and the head and neck region. Tobacco use is linked to 85 percent of all head and neck cancers. Research has shown that using alcohol and tobacco together can cause a greater risk than using either one alone.

Poor oral hygiene has also been linked to the development of head and neck cancer. This could include poorly fitting dentures or sharp/broken teeth that can cause irritation and infection.

Research is also revealing that the human papilloma virus (HPV) may also play a part in the development of certain types of head and neck cancer, such as tonsilar cancer. This may explain the increase number of non-smokers/non-drinkers that are being diagnosed with head and neck cancer. It has also been found that those cancers, which are HPV positive, have a more favorable prognosis. Researchers continue to look at this cause and possible prevention strategies such as a vaccine.

Often these cancers are found at later stages, which complicate the chances of cure and/or control. Prevention through tobacco cessation, limiting alcohol intake and good oral hygiene is important in reducing your risk. Early detection through biannual dental checkups and routine physical exams can assist in assessing for early signs of head and neck cancer. Successful treatment of head and neck cancer depends on early detection.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer will vary depending on where the tumor is located. Some of these symptoms may include but are not limited to:

  • lump or sore that does not heal

  • sore throat lasting more than two weeks

  • persistent swollen glands in the neck

  • neck mass

  • difficulty swallowing

  • changes in voice or hoarseness

  • white patches in mouth

  • facial pain

  • loss of smell

  • bloody nasal discharge

  • persistent ear pain

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or a less serious condition, but should be evaluated by a physician or dentist. A simple painless exam that takes 5 to 10 minutes can assist in the evaluation of the for mentioned symptoms. On Saturday, July 28th, the Mount Nittany Medical Center is sponsoring a head and neck cancer screening in collaboration with Tri-County Oral Surgeons from 9:00 am 12:00 pm. To schedule an appointment, please call 234.6106.

Head and neck cancer can be a devastating diagnosis. However, with prevention, early detection and new treatment modalities, we hope to decrease the overall incidence and cases seen in later stages.

If you have questions, you can find more information by calling the Pennsylvania Tobacco Quitline at 877.724.1090 or by viewing the following Web sites:

Tara Baney, RN, MS, AOCN is an oncology clinical nurse specialist at Mount Nittany Medical Center.